Sex, Nudity and Science

Generally speaking, young children are more boisterous than their parents. Much of this has to do with physical limitations. My seven year old does handsprings across the living room all day long, while my seventy year old mother would likely break in half attempting the same. Doubtless there is a mental, as well as a physical component to these differences. Older people don’t do cartwheels largely because they don’t feel like doing cartwheels, just as collecting dolls or watching cartoons loses its appeal after a certain age. Likewise, when a girl in first grade asked me to be her boyfriend, I told her no, because eight year old me thought kissing was gross. I was also deathly afraid of showering in the buff in view of my classmates. Not surprisingly, puberty changed my mind about locking lips with girls, and also led me down the path to becoming a nudist.

As we move through life’s stages, chemical changes in our brains determines our perceptions, our feelings, and our behavior. Neuroscientist Sam Harris asserts that every decision we make, however innocuous, stems from brain chemistry. For this reason, he argues, free will is merely an illusion. What you perceive as choice is, in actuality, something beyond your control. Now, while I do not fully prescribe to this claim, I do believe that a great deal of our lives is dictated by chemistry. Whether you’re waving a rainbow flag at a Gay Pride Festival or holding a sign that reads “God Hates Fags,” it’s the neurons firing impulses across your gray matter that’s making it happen. And it makes sense, if you think about it. Our brains are products of our inherited DNA, and can differ widely between race, sex and gender. Consider what would happen if you could turn a KKK member into an African American, or change a Bible thumping anti-gay pastor into a homosexual. OK, it’s been said that the most vociferous anti-gay proponents are gay themselves. Oftentimes, self-hate is the greatest hate of all. But I do not doubt the old wisdom about walking a mile in another man’s shoes, or the adage that states, “nothing happens until it happens to you.” Our nation has not been this divided since the Civil War, and understanding why and how we differ is as important as ever.

I came to realize the affect brain chemistry had on my nudist proclivities several years ago, when I mysteriously lost interest in sex. My doctor prescribed Cialis, because, as I suspect, he thought I was trying to boost my performance. What he had not understood was that my problem was entirely mental. I regarded the unclad female form to be the apex of beauty in the universe, but on that day in his office, women were pretty in the way you might call a flower pretty, or a rainbow, or a painting. A part of my brain had stopped working. When I looked at a girl who was, for lack of a better word, au natural, nothing was activating, and it scared me. Beyond just a lack of libido, I felt like I had aged about thirty years, like I was closer to sixty-five than thirty-five. At about the same time, I gave up on nudism. It isn’t as if my ideals had changed. I still believed in the basic right to be nude in public, and could find nothing offensive about the human body. But on a personal level, I just didn’t feel like it anymore. The longing to visit a beach or a resort, the desire to feel the wind and sun and water on my body, just wasn’t there. And the weird thing is, while I did not quite miss being naked, I did miss the wanting to be naked. Like sex, nudism had given me a great deal of joy, and now that part of me was missing. Months later, I had an MRI and was diagnosed with a pituitary tumor. The tumor was blocking production of testosterone, but thanks to a tiny round pill, the blockage shrank to almost nothing and I felt myself returning to normal. My libido shot back up, as did my enjoyment of nakedness.

For a naturist, nudity is innocent and natural. Textiles, by contrast, may see the unclothed body as crass, repulsive, or simply sexually stimulating. Scientists say DNA determines 80% of our personalities, from whether we are late or morning people to the types of foods we like to eat. In the same vein, the DNA of someone who loves being nude must differ from that of a person who dresses immediately after a shower. Genetic variations affecting behavior are manifested in the brain, but how and why environmental stimuli can alter it remains a mystery. For this reason, I would suggest that naturists themselves do not fully understand what drives them to the lifestyle, and that there is a lot more going on internally than a mere a longing for comfort.

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Naturists see things differently

Nudists have long insisted that there is no correlation between nudity and sex. I have made this claim myself. But after taking a trip down low-T lane, I am not so certain. What I do know is that the human brain is much more complex than we realize, and our sense of sexuality is equally complex. I am not suggesting that nudists are in it for the sex. This is patently untrue, as I have never seen an orgy breakout at a resort, and overt displays of lewd behavior will typically get you thrown out. But this isn’t to say that, at the level of the neuron, there isn’t something being triggered by the sight of genitalia. Sexuality plays a role in almost everything we do, from using the bathroom to our choice of swimwear to the way we dance. Subtle changes in facial expression, in body language, even in the pitch of our voices, can send signals of interest to the opposite sex without you even being aware of it. Sex is an integral part of being human and goes far beyond A + B. To suggest that nudism has “nothing” to do with sex, I feel, is either disingenuous or a symptom of mere confusion.

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Innocent but sexy

Why is it that every nakation travel brochure features young, attractive models? Even The Bulletin, the American Association for Nude Recreation’s own magazine, tends to display their more attractive members. The stars of pro-naturist films, like Free the Nipple and Act Naturally, are typically younger, and bloggers Felicity Jones and Lady God1va have many more followers than I will ever have, in part due to their sex and, let’s be honest, their attractiveness. At a naturist resort I visited with my wife in Cancun, the athletic young couple who happened to be vacationing there were treated like celebrities. That being said, I am not calling nudists out for hypocrisy. On the contrary, I am a firm advocate of the pro-body philosophy, and in fighting the harmful stereotypes of beauty so narrowly defined by Barbie dolls and Playboy. However, even nudists cannot deny the basic processes that go on in the brain, and that we all, on some level, harbor our own sexual biases.

The problem, I believe, stems from our lack of understanding how the brain works, and how it works in relation to sex. What we need is more research in this area, and while I do not have the means for it, I am calling for those in the nudist community to scrutinize the lifestyle from a scientific standpoint. If we are to be honest with ourselves, we must consider the possibility that when we slip off our clothes, the parts of our brains associated with arousal also light up.

It would not surprise me if some nudists were to protest this idea, in that it may somehow derail the movement, in that textiles will say to us, “Aha! I knew it! You’re all a bunch of perverts!” But for me, honesty and transparency has always been an integral part of nudism. In going naked, we choose to hide nothing. And when it comes to our inner thoughts and feelings, we should be equally forthcoming. Doing this might even help our cause. For too long, we have pretended that we see no difference between a clothed and a naked person. Even to argue that everyone is equally attractive is, I feel, disingenuous.

No matter our beliefs, we should never be afraid of scientific scrutiny, because science does not dictate moral action. The purpose of science is to help us make informed decisions. It may turn out that there is no relation between sex and nudity, or that, what I feel is more likely, that the associations we make are largely dependent on the individual. But even if it turns out that there is a greater connection between them than we like to let on, I do not feel it should dissuade us from our core principles. Naturism is the belief that human beings, regardless of sex or sexual orientation, have the capacity to treat one another with respect. And in showing the world that nudists are, in fact, human—that we have desires and prejudices and biases like everyone else— we may become more relatable, and the movement more attractive to newcomers.

***

For this article, I wanted to reach out to two of my fellow naturists, people I have known for a long time, who have devoted much of their lives to the movement. Keep in mind, the views of two people is statistically insignificant, and does not make for scientific study.


 

Steve Willard has been a naturist for 40+ years, and is the founder of All-Nudist, an online resource dedicated to separating real nudist sites from those peddling smut.

NICK: How old were you when you got into naturism, and what drove you into it?

STEVE: Growing up, my family was pretty casual about nudity, but not serious about it. I’d always been attracted to it and got naked, inside and out, whenever I could. Real beach and club nudism began in my mid-forties with my former wife. Not long after that I started All-Nudist as a counter to the smut usually found on the Web. We’ve tried to maintain a benchmark of social nudism that folks, especially newcomers, can use to compare with other versions they run across. Not everyone agrees with our viewpoint, but we feel that a conservative approach shared worldwide is a good start!

NICK: I agree there are a lot of so-called nudist sites that do not represent the movement at all. People seem to be stuck in this mindset, that it’s either all about sex or that we belong to some anti-sex cult. There is no happy medium. It should come as no surprise that people gravitate toward pictures of younger, attractive females (and males). Even your logo, I would argue, has an element of sexuality to it. What is your view on this?

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Sexy logo?

STEVE: Mea culpa, our logo could be seen as somewhat of a sexual appearance. Or is it ‘art’? Our original one was a line drawing of Adam and Eve, but this one is more ‘attractive’ and implies more than just old-fashioned concepts. But you won’t find gratuitous pics posted just for the sake of viewing; they’re used to illustrate an article just like any other legitimate information source does. Porn is and will continue to be associated with nudity, but a greater danger comes from those who wish to be part of social nudism, but want to change it to suit THEIR desires. They dilute and weaken the bonds that have formed over a hundred years. Those folks never embraced what nudism/naturism is in the first place.

NICK: No need to apologize for the logo. I really like it. But my point is, I feel that despite our beliefs, we cannot separate ourselves from our basic natures. Let me ask you, were there ever times in your life when you doubted the whole thing? Or, maybe you just didn’t feel like being nude anymore? Or are there days you’d rather just not be nude, even if it’s warm?

STEVE: Doubted? Never. I would be naked 24/7 if I could. Unfortunately, after a surgery gone bad, my metabolism has flip-flopped and I find myself bundled up in layers, while [my wife] Angie is nude on the couch! Not fair!

NICK: So, would you say you feel as interested in naturism as you were at 40? Or when you were in better health?

STEVE: Absolutely.

NICK: OK. Now I want you to imagine this hypothetical situation: you’ve been hooked up to a brain scan, and it has been clearly determined that the part of your brain associated with sex is also associated with the enjoyment you get out of nudity. How would you feel that would affect your ideas regarding nudism? Would you be surprised? Or would you be indifferent?

STEVE: I guess the short answer would be ‘indifferent’. As we’ve repeatedly affirmed on our website, just because we’re nudists doesn’t mean that we can’t appreciate an attractive person. ‘Attraction’ is inherently sexually motivated, as are nearly all things. That’s Nature at work! Attraction is essentially a desire to be closer to someone, for personality or sexual reasons. We wish to possess that person for ourselves. Nudists are just better at finding others attractive for reasons other than ‘beauty’ or sex appeal. It’s not as important as appearance is to Textiles. People are always talking about the sensual feeling of grass, wind and water on a bare body. True, and sensuality is a close friend of sexuality. There’s no reason not to let them mingle on occasion, or to enjoy the company of other nude people, but if sexual thoughts dominate the nudist experience, it may be time to find another place to pursue that and reconsider what it means to be a nudist/naturist. It’s not for everyone. As an aside, have you ever been at a nudist venue, perhaps in the pool, when a pretty young woman shows up? Watch the old men flock to make her feel welcome!

NICK: Yes! Young, beautiful couples tend to be treated differently, which seems to go against the nudist ethos, but I see nothing wrong with that. We are all products of our evolution. But what I have yet to see at a resort is harassment, or a woman being treated disrespectfully. No doubt it happens, I just haven’t seen it. Visit any nightclub and you’ll see a lot worse!


 

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Felicity after the pudding toss at the annual Northeast Naturist Festival

Felicity Jones (not the Rogue One star) is the co-founder of Young Naturists America, an organization dedicated to free-body activism. She does more than just write up naturist articles, however. Felicity helps to organize meet-ups with free-spirited individuals like herself, whom she calls ‘nudies,’ and arranges for special events like Body Painting Day, with artist Andy Golub in NYC. For Felicity, naturism goes hand-in-hand with feminism and a positive body image.

NICK: You’ve been involved in the naturist movement for a long time. When did you realize an interest in naturism? Or were you born into it?

FELICITY: I was born into it. My parents were naturists and I was raised in a naturist family. We belonged to a nudist club in NJ called Rock Lodge and so growing up I spent a lot of time there every summer.

NICK: Do you see a big difference between people introduced to the lifestyle at a young age and people coming into it later in life? How so?

FELICITY: Yes, for sure. People who get into nudism later in life tend to be a lot more enthusiastic, excited and dedicated to it. I guess that’s just the natural result of people growing up with something that’s accepted as normal, vs. choosing it for themselves later as something new and different. Beyond that, of course kids who grow up as naturists often have a more positive body image and healthier attitudes towards nudity and the human body. I believe the younger you are when you first try it, the more of a positive impact it can have on your psyche. It can work as a bit of an antidote to all of the negative messages we get about our bodies.

NICK: It has been my experience that men and women take to naturism differently. Men seem to want to be fully nude more often, and women seem to take comfort in simple accessories. I saw a lot of sarongs at a clothing-optional resort in Cancun!

FELICITY: Yes, I’ve written at length about the gender imbalance in naturism and how men seem to gravitate towards social nudity. It’s hard to pinpoint any one reason for this, but I’ve discussed a few social / cultural factors that I think are primarily to blame – body image, safety and rape culture, etc. Here’s my article about this – https://youngnaturistsamerica.com/nudist-women-why-naturism-has-lady-women-problem-today/

NICK: I know there’s a big misconception that nudists want to be nude 24/7. That being said, barring cold weather, are there days you simply prefer being dressed? If so, how do you feel your mood/self-image plays into that decision?

FELICITY: Well, it’s a misconception that that’s what it means to be a nudist, when really there’s kind of a spectrum. Some say they want to be naked all the time, but I think the majority are fine with wearing clothes sometimes. I wouldn’t really describe myself as a dedicated home nudist. Mostly I lounge in comfortable clothing when I’m home and it doesn’t have much to do with my mood or self-image. What I really like is being naked outdoors when it’s warm, and as far as my mood, I’m definitely happier that way [in the buff].

NICK: I believe there are differences in the brain between naturists, textiles, men and women that could explain differences in our behavior, outside of cultural and environmental aspects. Unfortunately, I have no real evidence to support this claim, but it is something I think we need to explore. For instance, my wife hates to be nude at home. I think most women are like this. Me, I prefer nudity 24/7, and I think that is true for a lot of guys.

FELICITY: I don’t *hate* to go nude at home. I’m just indifferent to it, or a little more comfortable in some kind of pants at least. I do get cold very easily, ha-ha. Unless I’ve just come from outside where it was blistering hot, then I’ll go in and strip down. But anyway, there could be some biological factor that makes men want to be naked. Who knows? There do exist women who want to be naked 24/7 too, so what would account for that difference? I still think the aforementioned cultural / social factors inhibit a lot of women from participating in naturism much more so than any brain / biological difference.

NICK: Lastly, I want to talk about sex. There seems to be a lot of contention about sex in nudism, with most nudists saying the two are entirely unrelated. I’d like to get your view on the subject.

FELICITY: I think nudists have had to work so hard in past decades to convince and assure everyone that nudism is a wholesome family activity, in the hopes that it would be accepted by society. But now things are different and I think it’s disingenuous to say, “Nudism isn’t sexual, at all, ever.” Humans are sexual beings, and that doesn’t change whether clothes are on or off. You don’t stop experiencing sexual feelings or being sexually attracted to someone in a nudist setting. The difference between sexual nudity and non-sexual nudity is in the behavior. Nudists don’t act on their sexual impulses. It’s all about context – there’s a time and place for everything. That’s a lot more explaining involved than saying “nudism is not sexual,” but I think nudists today need to acknowledge these distinctions instead of loudly insisting on that simple phrase.

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Body painting day!

 

The Shocking Truth: The Earth is a Sphere!

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I am not sure what the heck is going on here. Humanity seems to be going off the rails. First, we elect an incoherently rambling, narcissistic, racist, sex offending, billionaire conman as president, now YouTube is being inundated with “Flat Earthers,” people so shameless in their ignorance, that they not only admit to believing in, but argue that the Earth is a flat disc! I could never have imagined that anyone, other than a small child or possibly a Middle Eastern goat herder, could be this ignorant. Honestly, stupid is the only way to describe it. If this is where we are today, it disturbs me to think what the future holds for our species. How far back are we going to go? Might we be seeing blood sacrifices to bring back the buffalo? At this point anything is possible.

Now, I don’t know what kind of mind can wrap itself around the notion that the Earth is flat, and that every scientist, pilot, astronaut, cosmonaut, navigator, sailor, geographer and anyone with any common sense is lying to them. To be fair, this may be the result of some conspiratorial mental disorder. Perhaps, where these people live, there’s too much lead in the water (welcome to Trump’s anti-EPA America).

Science is the very best tool we have for knowing what is true and what is not. It’s the reason we can sit in a house, with a fridge full of food, and stare at a computer screen making YouTube videos. Using the scientific method, we make inferences about the nature of the world based on our observations. If you look outside your window and see a tree, you can be certain that tree is there. These observations, properly measured and recorded, is what is collectively referred to as evidence. But what Flat Earthers fail to understand, or refuse to understand, is that they must take into account all of the evidence. Going back to our tree analogy, if I were to walk outside to discover a lawn company had parked their truck in my driveway with a realistic picture of a tree on it, I might conclude that the tree I thought I had seen was, in fact, a photograph. The evidence presented by Flat Earthers in their videos is what is called “selective evidence.” They focus on the tree without ever going outside. Using this technique, I could prove anything I wanted. A scientific theory, to be taken seriously, must take into account all of the evidence. If there is even one piece of evidence that discredits your theory, your theory is wrong. And the only theory we have about the shape of the Earth that satisfies all of the evidence is the spherical theory.

What is this evidence, you ask? I’ve made a small list below. If Flat Earthers fail to explain any one of these things, then their argument is invalid, and that’s putting it kindly.


 

1. All astronomical bodies we can see with the naked eye are spherical: the moon, planets, the sun and stars.

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That’s a ball-shaped thing!

2. The sun rises and sets. If the Earth were flat, the sun would shrink, and we would not have day or night.

3. You can see the shadow of the Earth on the moon during a lunar eclipse and at certain phases. The only shape that always produces a round shadow is a sphere.

4. Stars rotate around us. If the Earth were a flat disc, we would see the stars growing more distant, and they would never entirely move beyond our line of sight. If the stars are dipping under a disc-shaped Earth, you would have to explain why people on the other side of the world can still see them.

5. Certain stars can only be seen in the northern or southern hemispheres. Try calling someone in Australia. Ask them to take a photo of the night sky. Their stars are different. This is only possible on a spherical Earth.

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6. Time zones are only possible on a spherical Earth. On a flat Earth, daylight would last the same amount of time everywhere.

7. In Scandinavia, night can last for 22 hours. This only makes sense on a spherical Earth.

8. It’s colder toward the poles, the further north or south you travel. Conversely, it tends to get warmer as you move closer to the equator. This only makes sense on a spherical Earth, as less sunlight reaches the upper or lower regions where the Earth curves away from the sun.

9. GPS can only work on a spherical Earth.

10. Satellite TV can only work on a spherical Earth. You can observe satellites with a store bought telescope, and you can see the International Space Station with the naked eye.

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11. We have countless photos of a spherical Earth. It is statistically impossible to fake all of the photographic evidence, and commit tens-of-thousands of scientists who have worked for NASA, the European, Indian and Chinese space agencies, and private space agencies, to a world-wide conspiracy. Not to mention we have amateur astronomers who make the same observations on their own. It would also cost more to hide the truth than to simply go into space!

12. Ships at sea vanish from bottom to top. This is only possible on a spherical Earth. Don’t believe some crackpot’s YouTube videos. Go out to sea! Witness it for yourself!

13. You can see much further from a higher altitude. This only makes sense on a spherical Earth. Conversely, it is impossible to see things in the opposite hemisphere, whereas on a flat disc you should be able to see the Himalayas with the naked eye, or at the very least, with a telescope.

14. Airlines navigate using a spherical Earth model, which is why you can fly faster from New York to London, than say, from New York to Paris.

15. A flat Earth is not physically possible. Gravity pulls things equally in all directions, which is why every major astronomical body is spherical. If the Earth were flat, it would collapse back into a sphere.

16. You can see the Earth is a sphere from a high altitude or by simply looking out at sea. This is why the Ancient Greeks and Egyptians knew the Earth was a sphere. In fact, the Greeks correctly calculated the circumference of the Earth using nothing but two sticks and trigonometry. I have seen the curve of the Earth myself and you can too. Stand atop a high altitude overlooking the sea and turn your head from side to side. You can also use a straight ruler and line it up to the horizon.

The Hub of All Worlds

There is this crazy theory that’s been rolling around in my head for quite some time. It’s the idea that, given enough time and space, all fictions are non-fiction. Take your favorite book or movie, The Lord of the Rings, Harry PotterStar Wars. Somewhere, at some point in time, these things must have happened. I know I know, call the men with the white jackets, but hear me out for a sec.

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A growing number of astrophysicists have been arguing in favor of the multiverse theory, which states that there may be more than one universe, and in all likelihood, an infinite number of them. Neil deGrasse Tyson has stated that every time humanity thought there was only one of something, one Earth, one solar system, one galaxy, we were wrong. So why stop at one universe? The multiverse theory helps to explain a number of astronomical enigmas, including the origin of the Big Bang, the identities of dark matter and dark energy, and the inexplicably rapid expansion of space. One needs only ask, if our universe banged into existence, from where did it originate, if not some nether region beyond itself? If it is expanding, like a balloon, what space is it expanding into, if not some outer-outer space? What is perhaps still more interesting, if there is in fact more than one universe, astrophysicists argue, it is very well possible that each of these are governed by physical laws different from our own. If the gravitational constant deviated to the slightest degree during the early formation of the cosmos, stars may not have formed, and without stars you cannot have planets, or life. Life may be unique not just to our planet but to our universe as well. But if the multiverse has no boundaries, there would have to exist an infinite number of universes containing life, and in every conceivable form. Consider the limitless ways in which subatomic particles can come together, and the possible arrangement of atoms that follow, and the DNA strands constituent of those atoms. If these quantities are infinite—and only if they are infinite—some random Big Bang would create the right conditions for some random planet to randomly form Westeros from Game of Thrones, and the myriad details those books contain. Not only that, but we would also have a Westeros where things are slightly skewed, where Ned Stark doesn’t get beheaded, even one where everyone lives happily ever after. There would exist so many possible Westeroses, that finding the one you are look for would be as impossible as finding any Westeros, and by impossible, I mean it would take you an infinite number of years. This is the problem with the number infinity. It’s a difficult concept to grasp, even for mathematicians, and it makes for some profound if not absurd proofs. There are several other problems with this theory as well:

 

  1. There may NOT be a multiverse at all. According to Lawrence Krauss’ A Universe from Nothing, one universe is all we need, and everything about the Big Bang and its consequent expansion can be explained by our current understanding of physics.
  2. If the multiverse does exist, it may not be infinite.
  3. The only number that can mathematically affect infinity is infinity itself. So all the kids at the playground one-upping you with, “infinity +1” are wrong in thinking their number is bigger. Infinity +1 = Infinity. Infinity -1 = Infinity. Heck, Infinity minus a googolplex is still Infinity. I bring this up only because, in the previous paragraph, I made the assumption that where time and space are infinite, variation is not. Imagine I left you alone with a certain number of LEGO blocks, and I gave you until forever to arrange those blocks any way you wanted. Eventually, every car, house or boat you could possibly make, you would. However, if I were to give you an infinite number of LEGOs, you could not arrange them in every way possible, no matter how long you tried, as these two infinities would cancel each other out. Infinity – Infinity = 0. Now, replace LEGO blocks with atoms, and you get the same result. Given a limitless number of ways a universe could exist, we might never, ever produce Westeros.

 

Now let’s assume, for the sake of this thought experiment, that a multiverse definitely exists, time and space are indeed infinite, but there are just so many ways atoms can be ordered. Given these statements, we still run into the problem of infinity itself, because, as stated before, even if there is a Westeros somewhere, or a Middle Earth or a Hogwarts, we most likely could never, ever find it. Even after a million years of technological and biological evolution, having built starships to make the Enterprise look like a wheelbarrow, we still would never be able to find our favorite fictional world out there, though we might be able to prove, mathematically at least, that those worlds exist.

In his short story, The Library of Babel, Argentinian Sci-Fi author Jorge Borges imagines an infinitely-sized library, containing not just every book ever written, but every book that could ever be written. The people perusing the library seek to find books containing a record of their own lives, but given the nature of large numbers, they never do.

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The Library of Babel

From a pragmatic standpoint, such metaphysical-mathematical musings are a waste of time. If we can never know, why bother? We could make the same case for a much more plausible scenario. At this very moment, as you are reading this, some alien being is reading a near identical theory, in a thriving civilization on the opposite side of the universe, some 13 billion light years away. Even if we could freeze ourselves in a starship, to travel for that length of time, the alien civilization would certainly fizzle out by the time we got there. In fact, after 13 billion years, entropy would eliminate all trace of any such civilization having ever existed. Its star could go supernova and the gases surrounding it could reform into a new star and a new system before our arrival. If that weren’t enough, after 13 billion years, the rate of the expanding universe will exceed the speed of light, so even if we were to travel as fast as any particle can go, we would still never, ever meet our alien neighbors on the opposite side of our universe, or even find evidence of their existence. They would be as elusive to us as non-fictional Westeros. William James, founder of pragmatism, would likely argue that, if no evidence can ever be presented of something being true, it is equivalently untrue.

Not so fast, William James, because here is where art comes in, to exceed the limits of math and science and philosophy. For while we may never be able to literally travel to our favorite fictional worlds, we can get there instantaneously, using the vessel that is the human mind. This is what we do whenever we think. Or use our imaginations to create worlds. Authors, painters, video game developers, and the like, are all in effect explorers, and the space in which they explore is that of probability (in Sci-Fi) and possibility (via fantasy). Now it may appear that I have made a kind of logical fallacy, an argument from semantics. Fiction is something we consider to be untrue, because we can’t ever really know if it’s untrue, or, in other words, we believe something is false only because we can’t know whether it’s true. For a writer, however, this need not be a matter of contention. Writers do not seek absolutes, after all, but uncertainties, and to some extent, falsehoods. By entertaining metaphorical realities, we give fodder to those seeking literal realities. And even then, what exists solely in the mind possesses its own inherent value. At the very least, this thought experiment can help us rethink and reassess the purpose of creativity, and how it can play a larger role in the big questions posed by science and philosophy.

The realm of possibility and probability, where fiction and non-fiction dance around one another, is a place I like to call The Hub of All Worlds. It is an imaginary center, similar to Cosmos’ spaceship of the imagination, from which we can traverse the multiverse. And, while the theory that everything is true, given sufficient time and space, may not have any real-world applications, it makes for good storytelling.

Kurzweil’s Future? No thanks . . .

 

You could say I am a bit of a Luddite. I have never been a fan of the future and the only science fiction I like are the kinds that promise a return to simplicity, like Avatar, or those that are really fantasy in disguise, Star Wars, or those apocalyptic stories that warn against excessive technology, A Brave New World, 1984, Cloud Atlas. It may seem ironic to complain about technology in a blog, of all places, but what choice do I have? I live in a world surrounded by technology, as are all of my friends and family. It is inescapable. I would much rather discuss this subject around a tribal fire or at the local town square, but those things no longer exist. I am also not impractical. I am not about to go Ted Kaczynski and retreat into the woods to wage a personal war against IBM. Like most people on the planet, I accept the modern world. Hipsters who retreat to communes are deluding themselves if they think they’re going primitive. Nature is all well and good until somebody needs antibiotics. So, yes, I do own a computer, a laptop, a widescreen TV, a Blu-Ray player, a Wii U. I may sound like a hypocrite, until you ask me, why do I have all these things? And the reasons are plenty: loneliness, boredom, a desire to be part of society. Yet those reasons, those needs for technology, were less crucial when my father was growing up. For him, Facebook meant face-to-face conversation. Television was singing and playing the bouzouki around the dinner table. Halo was bird hunting in the Greek countryside. Now you might be saying, Sure, Nick, you say you want to live like that, but you’re just romanticizing the past. Certainly, it was a worse time to live. Maybe. But I can recall my own childhood, before hundreds of cartoons played 24/7 on TV, when all I had was He-Man, G.I.*Joe and Transformers. I remember a time before Nintendo, when I busied myself writing stories and living out those stories with my toys. Maybe it’s just nostalgia talking, but those were happier days. I actually used my own imagination then. I created my own worlds. Today, I watch my kids and they barely touch their toys, or think up games to play. Instead, they’ve become information sponges, absorbing whatever is coming from Nick Jr. or Super Mario Bros.. They definitely don’t look any happier with all of this extra stuff, and I am willing to bet that, as long as their basic needs are met, children of all generations are equally happy with the technology they are born with.

The notion that the next great thing will make you happy is a myth, perpetuated by corporations that need you to buy their stuff, by a consumer driven society that places emphasis on wealth. Blu-Ray disc is a perfect example. Everyone was content with the quality of DVD until high definition discs came along. But did the newer format make everyone happier? To me, it seems, all it did is make everyone unhappy with their old DVDs. It only goes to prove what Buddhists have known for centuries. Wanting things is the root cause of suffering. It is an ever perpetuating illusion. We pursue what we most desire, whatever it may be, a new car, a bigger house, the latest iPhone, like a donkey after a carrot on a stick, but those things never manage to provide what we actually want, or, if we do feel happy for a time, the feeling is short lived. Like a drug addict, we are convinced that the answer is more. More stuff. Newer stuff. It never ends. Like Henry David Thoreau said in Walden, and I paraphrase here, you don’t own things, things own you. 

The impetus for this blog was an article a friend showed me by Ray Kurzweil. For those who’ve never heard of him, Kurzweil is an optimist and a futurist, and he has made some truly outlandish predictions. Among other things, by ten years time, he says, we will find a way to live forever. The basis for this claim is something he calls The Law of Accelerating Returns. According to the theory, biological and technological advancement accelerates on an exponential curve, which is itself exponential. With a whole lot of charts and graphs, Kurzweil describes the rapid evolution of life, from animal species to man, the light speed achievements of civilization within geologic time, and the current rate of doubling computer power. With considerable evidence, he makes a compelling case for a world dominated by nanobots, computers that can think far beyond human capacity, and for a time when biology and technology are integrated to form a new kind of human. He’s not talking science fiction here, or a distant, unimaginable future. For Kurzweil, this will be happening in our own lifetimes. My friend who showed me the article thinks this is all hunky dory, but I find it unnerving. OK, maybe I am being short sighted. Maybe my children or grandchildren will think me old fashioned, the way I think of my father, as I cling to my books and my disc based entertainment, while they have nanobots inserted into their brains for virtual reality experiences.

I will admit that many modern conveniences do make our lives better. It brings to mind The Carousel of Progress, which was featured at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City, by one visionary future optimist, Walt Disney. You can still see it at the Magic Kingdom. The show is literally a carousel that rotates in stages, showing scenes as played out by animatronic actors. Each stage is a time period. As the decades pass, you can see how simple things like plumbing, washing machines, and electric ovens saved people, especially housewives, from devoting all of their time to work. The final stage, representing “the future” is hardly futuristic at all. Grandma is playing some video game with a heavy looking VR helmet and the oven has an automatic sensor to detect when the food is cooked. We basically have these things already. We are living in the future Walt Disney envisioned. But how much better is human life today when compared to the 60’s, the 70’s or the 80’s? As I see it, our existence has become too convenient, which is why we suffer from obesity. At the same time, it has also become more stressful, with all of our time devoted to filtering spam in our e-mails and checking our bank accounts on our phones. Technology has made it so that I can roll my car window up with the push of a button, except that now I have to worry about rising gas prices, global warming, and a car payment. I would much rather ride my bike everywhere, but the streets are congested with technology, cars, cars and more cars! Even cell phones, everyone’s favorite new distraction, has its pitfalls. The other day I sat in an ice cream shop with my daughter, watching five teenage girls, all seated around a single table, simply staring in silence, like zombies, at their iPhones. What Kurzweil fails to realize with all of his graphs is that for every major innovation, new, unimagined problems are created. He argues that technological development will continue to become more prevalent in our lives, whether we like it or not, and so the best solution to the evils of technology is more good technology. He uses the triumph of programming over the computer virus as an example, which is all fine and good, but where is the programming to help bring people together? I remember a time when kids met at arcades and played in the street or in the woods. Time travelers from the 60’s would find our neighborhoods gravely quiet. They might assume some calamity took place to have made the children vanish, or, should they look through a window, for parents to feel the need to sequester their kids indoors.

I cannot deny that change is coming, unimaginable change. But change isn’t always for the better. Computers superior to humans? Hasn’t Kurzweil seen The Matrix? Terminator? Even if those scenarios are unlikely, a more possible outcome, I think, is a world where humans become obsolete. Who needs writers, musicians, painters, directors, when a machine can do just as well if not better? Kurzweil counters that humans will also have advanced, but unlike machines, people will continue to have selfish needs, like incomes and free time to play and rest. Just as factory machines replaced countless artisans during the Industrial Revolution, computers will takeover the last vestige of human expertise: artistic endeavor. If a computer can write a better screenplay, without pay, why hire a writer? OK, so maybe I am overreacting. Let us assume Kurzweil is correct and a new species of uber-human will out-compete computer labor. What will be the nature of this new humanity? In his article, Kurzweil delves into the philosophy of identity. He argues, rightly so, that we are not made up of the same cells since birth, that we’re not even our physical selves from the previous year—each of our cells die off and are then replaced by new ones. In essence, we are more like a river, with our cells passing in and out of existence, leaving only a repeating pattern. Should, then, each of these cells gradually be replaced, one-by-one, by nanotech, would we then not retain our identities while becoming superior in the process? He makes a compelling case, but there is a flaw. As I see it, Nick Alimonos is neither a cluster of cells nor a recurring pattern. Nick Alimonos is comprised of the times and places he has lived, the people and experiences he has known, and yes, his strengths and his limitations. Of the many facets of my personality, one is simply this: I do not like sports. Why? Most likely because I am extremely near sided, which I never knew until the 6th grade, so I never learned to catch a ball properly. I also have weak lungs and my heart rate is all over the place, so I am physically ill-equipped for sports. P.E. was a continual torment for me. I was ridiculed, almost continuously, by my coach and my classmates. Like Pavlov’s dog, I was conditioned to dislike football and basketball, so I turned my focus to what I could do well, like reading and writing. My lack of ability defines who I am. Place me in the body of Michael Jordan, which I am sure is right around the corner should we ask Kurzweil, and I am no longer Nick Alimonos.

Maybe I am being overly sensitive, but the future scares me. Unlike Kurzweil, I see a potential looming dark age. History is cyclical. Before 1200 B.C., the Cycladic Greeks lived in a kind of paradise (from which the Atlantis myth derives). Afterward, Greece entered into a thousand years of darkness. The same thing happened after the fall of the Roman Empire. Kurzweil argues that, looking at the larger picture, humanity has continually moved forward, and I cannot argue with that, but as individuals we are short lived and fragile. Should we enter another dark age, one populated by killer cyborgs, we may die before coming to an eventual utopia. I am not all doom and gloom about the future, however. I look forward to a time when fossil fuels are replaced by clean energy, when cities are redesigned to integrate seamlessly with nature, when food is grown hydroponically in skyscrapers, and where the primary method of transportation will be either walking, cycling, or mass transit. But what we do not need is nanobots inserted into our brains, or computers that can outthink us, or robots to do all of our laundry. It’s all just stuff, newer and better, but stuff has never made us any happier and it never will.